For the ceremony they’d rented an apartment in an old Victorian home on Kalamazoo Avenue. It was a house Billy walked past hundreds of times on his way to work for both of his jobs, the museum and the glasswork studio. The house was smaller, less grand, than the neighboring historic homes and it’d been painted a brilliant purple with two additional, jarring, shades of purple for the trim, window frames and doors. The house was set deeper into its lot than other homes on the block and was fronted by two towering, despondent pines. At night, after the owners had gone to sleep, the house was lost in shadow. The empty gap of a lost tooth.
In emails with the shaman’s assistant they were told a place was needed for the ceremony that wasn’t their own home. Every location has a bias and the shaman, Don Raul, didn’t want their experience influenced by the patterns that had come to define their lives. So Billy found the apartment through a website specializing in short-stay rentals in people’s homes. It was cheap, the owners would be away for the weekend while they visited their son at Michigan State, and the rental was walking distance from their own apartment.
They spent the previous day fasting and purging to prepare their bodies for the ceremony. Cesar had sent them a recipe for a salt-water cleanse and encouraged them to keep drinking the briny concoction until their bowels were completely clean. It took Billy twelve glasses of salt-water and Beth took much longer. Billy, drained in all respects, had cheered her on while pouring her glass after glass of briny water and whispering support through the bathroom door. After twenty-two glasses she walked out of the bathroom, sighed, and said, “I’m done.” They collapsed into bed and slept for hours, waking to an evangelical discussion on the radio.
“....fear what we don’t understand and it's natural, necessary even, to question the impact that all of this new technology will have on our humanity and, yes, even our souls. You suffer in a small way every time you’re ignored because a friend prioritizes a text message over speaking directly with you. Every Like and Comment is time spent away from real relationships, giving real people real feedback. More and more we’re living for artificial moments and false gain and these moments are the cracks in our humanity through which the Devil slips. It may not seem like much, but neither does water and we all know its patient power. Given enough time a trickle of water will break the will of the strongest rock.”
“Listen, at Mason Ministries we love technology. At one point the Bible was the peak of communications technology, a book instead of a codex, but we should be looking for technologies that enhance our innate humanity and be suspicious of any idea that erodes our…”
Billy had slapped the Snooze button and they lay side by side until she rolled out of bed and padded barefoot down the hallway. Billy watched her until she stepped into the bathroom then he crawled out of bed and packed their sleeping bags and water bottles.
When she was done in the bathroom he brushed his teeth. Staring into the mirror at his own brown eyes he resented the intensity of his own gaze. For years he had fought for a normal life, free of conflict, and now that he had settled into a loving routine he felt something was missing. He missed having something to bang his head against. The things we know are not always the best things for us but, damn, they’re hard to let go.
Was it possible to fight for peace of mind?
He spat and dragged his hands down the sides of face, feeling the stubble pull at his palms. There was the soft blank of an old scar on his chin where no hair grew. He put on some deodorant then joined Beth in the living room where they watched TV in silence, a Three Stooges marathon, until it was time to meet the shaman.
Light-headed and nervous they arrived at the rented apartment after the sun had set as Don Raul had instructed. They walked down the driveway, past a rental car with Ohio plates, and up the exposed stairs on the side of the house to the second floor rental. The shaman’s assistant, Cesar, met them at the door. Billy was surprised, and a little disappointed, by Cesar’s normality. He was in his twenties, dressed comfortably in a dark sweatshirt and loose, baggy pants. He had the traces of a light goatee framing a strong, pointed chin. Feed him a high protein diet, give him some time with a personal trainer and put him in a white, unbuttoned shirt and he could grace the cover of a romance novel. His english was perfect, nondescript and lacking any traces of his Peruvian heritage.
The apartment was dimly lit by several chunky candles that cast just enough flickering light into the living room that Billy could identify the shapes of furniture. The window shades were half drawn and most of the remaining outside light was blocked by the pine trees in the front lawn. Shadows jumped in Billy’s peripheral vision and he felt the room was already occupied by spirits who wanted to remain unseen but couldn’t resist exploring.
Don Raul was sitting on the floor at the far side of the room when they entered and he rose unsteadily, one hand propped on a knee, and approached them as Cesar made introductions. A candle was positioned on the floor near where he had been sitting and there, in the twitching shadows, was a smart phone. The shaman had been checking his email.
Don Raul’s diminutive frame was swaddled in patterned fabric and as he stepped into the light Billy saw that he wore a tasseled, woven hat with ear flaps that framed the roughly hewn block of his face. He had a flat nose that looked as if it had been broken and poorly set. When they shook hands his grip was heavy and strong.
Beth spent the previous weeks consuming everything she could read about ayahuasca and Peruvian shamanic traditions. She even been listened to Spanish podcasts to get in the right frame of mind. If there was a Incan language podcast, Billy was sure she would’ve been listening to it every morning while doing yoga.
Beth gave Don Raul a tiny bow, and said, “Buenas noches, curandero.” An odd mashup of cultural cues and Billy made a mental note to tease her later. If the bow was out of place the shaman didn’t notice. His wide mouth split into a uneven grin and he replied in a language Billy didn’t recognize. The old shaman took Beth by the arm and after she had kicked off her sneakers he led her to the middle of the room where he gestured for her to sit. At least, Billy thought, he looks the part.
Billy looked at Cesar who gestured inwards, towards the living room. “You heard the man.”
Cesar laid a colorful red square of fabric on the floor. Sewn into the fabric was a typically indigenous pattern of geometric interlocking shapes. The recurring motif was a two-tiered teal ziggurat that was flipped and rotated so the base always faced the outside of the fabric.
Don Raul began placed the tools of his trade on the cloth. They were positioned in the cardinal directions: three cigarettes pointing outward in the North, East and West positions and an opened bible was placed in the South position, facing the shaman. Two colorful maracas flanked the bible and a painted wooden flute was laid down running parallel along the North edge of the cloth. Finally, a soda bottle half filled with thick, brown ayahuasca was placed in the center of the fabric and two glass bottles were placed on either side. The inside of the ayahuasca bottle was caked with chunky brown streaks. There was a discord between the processed plastic of the bottle, with its peeling Pepsi label, and the homemade brew within. The shaman could have used any bottle. He could have gone to the mall and picked up something more durable, more elegant, but he used an old 2-liter pop bottle that was cloudy with age. It looked like something that came from the Amazon and for the first time the experience started to feel real.
Cesar would help them with buckets when it was time to vomit and when the purging ceased they were told they should lay down and close their eyes. Vomiting would feel natural, a release of pressure, and it signaled the beginning of their visions. Sometimes, the shaman noted, the visions would become dark. Very dark, he said. But that was an essential part of the experience. They had to work through the difficulty. No journey worth taking was easy. He spoke at great length and Cesar translated simply, “When things become dark, ask the vine something you’d like to learn. Remember this and repeat it whenever you’re lost or afraid. It’ll help you back to a safer place.”
So many questions. Mentally Billy ticked them off.
Don Raul poured the thick brew into coffee mugs. He looked again at Beth and poured some of hers into Billy’s cup then gestured for them to drink.
“Don’t sip it,” advised Cesar, “just chug the whole thing. After that just sit and relax. No talking.”
Billy toasted Beth then drained his mug. It filled his mouth with the taste of coffee, dirt and citrus. The thick brown sludge coated his tongue. It had the grit of Turkish coffee, the taste of plant fiber and the deep, clean funk of freshly overturned earth. A hint of lemon. He gagged, swallowed again, and the ayahuasca released its grip, sliding downwards into his throat. He looked at Beth and she was grimacing but bouncing with excitement. After drinking she returned his gaze with a smile, leaned forward and set her cup on the floor.
Billy gave her a thumbs up.
The house ticked and he was struck, again, by the silence. Beneath the scent of burning leaves he smelled burnt plastic. He tried to sit up and the pain in his chest exploded, dropping him back to the floor. Instinctively he curled into a ball and his hands went to his chest where he felt something unexpected through a ragged hole in his t-shirt. Confused, he eased out of his sleeping bag, pushed it down and around his waist then peeled his t-shirt up. Emerging from his chest was the smooth, faceted dome of a black stone. The skin around the stone was raw and puckered but followed the contours of the object perfectly. The expanse of skin from his beltline to his abdomen was pink and sensitive. There was no open wound or blood, just a black stone rising from his chest and refracting the morning light. It looked like quartz crystal. He touched the stone and it was warm.
Images flickered through his mind: sharp blades pulling tools from a bag and blunt, brown fingers making incisions, carving away strips of flesh, moonlight flickering around the crystal like a moth as it’s settled into position, hidden sutures sealing the gaps between skin and stone.
Lightheaded, he laid down and took slow, measured breaths to a count of ten while he traced the irregular facets of the stone with his fingertips. A wasps nests of panic stirred in the back of his mind and he pushed it down by force of will. Panic wouldn’t help him understand what was happening, it would only get in the way and this was something he needed to understand. Emotions would only slow him down. Later there’d be time to fall apart.
He remembered looking at Beth and she seemed shrunken, her sleeping bag twitching as shudders ran the length of her body. He wanted to touch her but was too distant. Was the ayahuasca trying to tell him something, that there was a greater purpose behind separation, or was perspective bending simply because he was high? At one point he wanted to end the ceremony but it was much too late to back out. He shut his eyes and, with a momentary pang of guilt, fell backward into the hallucinations.
Potentially the stone was a continuation of his hallucinations. The images from the previous night seemed real enough, especially in the moment. He’d been in those places, the forest and the cave. The man with the head of a deer’s skull had felt real, had spoke to him and he had welcomed the connection. There were moments of fear so powerful that he fought his way back to consciousness and opened his eyes to see Don Raul and Cesar tending to him, blowing smoke over his body and spraying him with Agua Florida, a look concern in the shaman’s eyes.
Now, in the light of day, the dreams lacked the details of realness. They were broad-stroke impressions and powerful emotional dynamics but they didn’t appeal to all of his senses. There was always some sensory input missing, smell or feeling, or an occlusion of detail like not feeling the ground under his feet. Memories were like this, he realized. We’re selective about the details we retain but hallucinations have this quality while they were happening. We see just what we need to see. Laying on the floor, feeling the stone on his fingertips, the cool breeze on his skin and the hardwood floor under his back he wasn’t certain he was still dreaming.
Billy realized no one had reacted to his movement. Don Raul and Cesar had been ever-present throughout the night, tending to his and Beth’s needs but now that he was awake no one had said a thing.
He lifted his head and looked where the shaman and his assistant sat vigil throughout the night. They were gone. The entire spread from the ceremony: the bottles of ayahuasca, the cigarettes and Agua Florida for scaring away bad spirits, the rattles and the blanket where it all lay last night. Gone. Billy sat up, blood rushing from his head, and looked to his side where he watched Beth slip into her own hallucinations only hours before. The pain from his chest washed over him, a strain that made him gasp for breath, but there was something wrong. Something that made the pain seem inconsequential.
Beth was gone.